Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mal Aria in the The Chittagong Hill Tracts

(Also see my previous article "Horace in the Hills" at http://www.onlinejournal.org/Commentary/100105Sayeed/100105sayeed.html

Late on the night of December 2, 1997 my mother received a phone call from an Awami League MP, Mrs. Chitra Bhattacharya, who is also a close family friend.
The message she had to communicate with breathless excitement was that the Peace Treaty with the PCJSS of the hill tracts had been signed. Her husband, Mr. Debesh Bhattacharya, was an ex-judge of the Supreme Court. How the pair could connive at such a massively illegal manouevre is beyond me.

1) The so-called treaty has a provision for a Land Commission under which all land disputes will be settled – without any scope for appeal to the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, thereby setting up another Supreme Court in Bangladesh; in effect, creating two countries. This violates the rights of all concerned – the hill people as well as the Bengali settlers – and violates the sovereignty of Bangladesh.

2) The so-called Treaty was rejected by a section of the people of the hill tracts – the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF), which, on my last visit, was far more popular than the PCJSS. I do not see how the PCJSS can pretend to speak for all the hill people.

3) The International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, a body set up in Copenhagen in the 1990s after the cold war ended to pressure the Bangladesh government to 'resolve' the hill tracts issue, has scant regard for the constitution of the country. They have devised a treaty that is ultra vires of the constitution, as I pointed out in section 1. This won't be the first time that foreigners have raped our constitution: in 1990, when General Ershad resigned, instead of the vice-president taking over per constitution, the Chief Justice, the supposed protector of the constitution, became its chief violator by becoming president – and then legalizing his action by an act of parliament. Henceforth, no one could be certain that, given sufficient international pressure, our apex court won't give in. This was how the international community hoped to bring about the 'rule of law' in Bangladesh. They repeated a similar manoeuvre on 11th January 2007. All the talk about the 'rule of law' and 'the people's rights' is just palaver.

4) Since the signing of the hopelessly misnamed Peace Treaty, over 200 people have been killed in violence between the PCJSS and the UPDF. The Commission insists there will be no slide in law and order after withdrawal of the armed forces: the events of the past years belie that possibility. Furthermore, settlers have put up road blocks to prevent the army from leaving on several occasions: despite these facts, the Commission insists there's nothing to fear.

5) One of the major sticking points in the implementation of the non-treaty, and one which nobody talks about, is the fact that the Bengali settlers are internally displaced people (IDP): they didn't voluntarily go to the hills to settle among the malaria and the jungles. Thus, they have to be rehabilitated as well as the hill people. This is something the PCJSS refuses to accept. No doubt, the Commission and our government will sell out the settlers for a fictitious and iniquitous peace that will be no peace.

6) The disrespect of the Commission for constitutional procedure is evidenced by the fact that the Commission insists there will be no violence if the army is removed from the hills – despite the matter being sub judice and that the High Court of Bangladesh has issued an injunction against troop withdrawal. Does the Commission feel that it is above the judiciary of Bangladesh? Clearly it does.

7) It is unfortunate that the so-called Peace Treaty has stirred up such a hornet's nest of constitutional matters. Whichever way the High Court verdict goes – and no doubt the issue will be taken all the way to the Appellate Division – the verdict will not please all parties. Such verdicts cannot: either the settlers and their supporters will be angry, or the hill people and the PCJSS will be disappointed. And the apex court will once again be discredited.

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